Quick Wit: P.J. Benjamin
Chicago's "Mr. Cellophane" talks with Ricky Spears about gangsters, ballet, and The Andy Griffith Show.
Now, he's back on Broadway as Amos Hart in Chicago, and his rendition of Kander and Ebb's "Mister Cellophane" in the second act is a highlight of the show. Between singing lessons with his wife Louisa Flaningam (they are fine tuning a club act), Benjamin was caught in his car on his cell phone for a quick TheaterMania interview.
I hear that you have a personal connection to Chicago.
My grandfather had a bar in Chicago at the time when the musical is set. He dealt with the Al Capone group back then. You had to have a jukebox in your tavern, no questions asked; that's how the gangs laundered their money. The murder in Chicago happened about 40 blocks away from the tavern. My character's name in real life was Albert, and it's pretty bizarre that I'm playing a character that lived near the tavern. We sold it just a couple of years ago.
When did all this acting and singing stuff start?
I went to an all-boys high school that was near an all-girls high school; they did plays, and my friends said, "Let's go over." Being from the south side of Chicago, I wanted to hang out and play ball. But when I got my first look at all those girls, well...My first show was Carousel. I juggled a plate. The nuns were directing.
You got the bug?
I wanted to be a veterinarian. I had skunks and monkeys and raccoons that I kept in the basement of the tavern. We could have gotten closed by the board of health many times, but the health guy used to drink at our bar, so I got to keep them. It was great being around all those guys; it was good training.
How did you get your Equity card?
I was 19, in Chicago, doing the regular route of college performances, and someone said they were looking for Equity and non-Equity actors at the Shubert in Chicago for the national company of Promises, Promises. I was taking dance classes then and I had a theater scholarship to Loyola University, so I went and got down to the wire for a replacement in the chorus. It got down to me and my dance teacher, and I thought, "How could I do this to my dance teacher, if I did a combination and they said they were going to go with me?" I did get the show, and my teacher got in later when they needed another replacement. It was great experience. As a footnote, I didn't play Chicago again until I went back to the Shubert with Chicago. They gave me a piece of the marble in the lobby as a memento of my time there.
What's your favorite song from a musical?
I think it's "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles. I love that song. It says a lot.
Do you have a personal hero?
You know, I have three: Dick Van Dyke, Red Skelton, and Danny Kaye.
What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you on stage?
I was doing a live industrial for Armstrong, the carpet and ceiling people, and we just couldn't get through this one bit. We were laughing really hard, and this was in front of the head honchos of Armstrong--the president, the vice president. We laughed so hard that this girl who was with us peed on stage; they had to stop the show and bring out a mop. We were dying!
Do you have a pet peeve?
Yes: Actors who leave shows at the drop of a hat. Longer running shows are hard, but I don't like people just running off.
If you could wake up in the morning with a skill that you don't already possess, what would it be?
Ballet. I've only taken twelve ballet classes in my whole life, and yet most of my roles have been dance roles.
What's your favorite sound?
Waves. The ocean crashing.
What gets you really choked up?
When I perform for people with disabilities, or very elderly people. One time, my wife and I were performing at an assisted living home. We were doing "Me and My Shadow." This one guy was totally out of it; he was, like, 90 years old. But, while we were singing, he rose up and said "Ted Lewis sang that song!" To connect with people like that really gets to me.
Do you have a favorite theatrical memory?
Opening night of Charlie and Algernon at the old Helen Hayes Theater. I was the star of the show, with millions of dollars riding on my back, plus I had a mentally ill sister. That show meant a lot to me.
What was the greatest performance by an actor or actress that you've ever seen?
I've got to tell you, it was one I saw just recently: Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun. What a natural!
Is there a show you're dying to do?
I'd love to do something with my wife. And, someday, I'd love to do Tevye in Fiddler.
One last question: What is your favorite way to unwind after a show?